Learning and Cultural Transmission in Chaffinch Song

Katharina Riebel, Robert F. Lachlan, Peter J.B. Slater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The degree to which culture and cultural evolution are unique to humans has been a subject of continuous debate in the biological and social sciences. Bird song provides one of the most convincing animal examples, and the study of song learning and cultural transmission in chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) has been central in this research, but has not been reviewed systematically. Not only can the classic work on song learning in chaffinches by Thorpe and Marler be said to have kick-started the field of vocal learning and traditions in animals, but subsequent work in this species has provided an exceptional depth and breadth of data on geographic variation in song and its cultural evolution. Here we review the work on chaffinch song that has been carried out in the 60 or so years since Thorpe and Marler's pioneering studies. In addition to further work on vocal learning and on dialects, the chaffinch has become a prime subject for studies of cultural evolution, particularly through studies on the Atlantic islands, as well as in Britain, Europe, and New Zealand. As well as describing such studies, we identify further areas likely to be fruitful for research on this species, which remains one of the icons of bird song research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-227
Number of pages47
JournalAdvances in the Study of Behavior
Early online date5 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - May 2015


  • Bird song
  • Development
  • Dialects
  • Fringilla coelebs
  • Gene-culture coevolution
  • Inter- versus intrasexual selection
  • Nonhuman cultural evolution
  • Song and call learning
  • Vocal learning

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